Tiger one day away from return, but answers will wait


NASSAU, Bahamas – The stage has been cleared.

The conjecture and the false starts are a thing of the past. Finally, after nearly 16 arduous months of waiting, Tiger Woods is ready to once again walk inside the ropes on the PGA Tour.

It’s a statement that Tour pros as well as golf fans at large have embraced this week. Woods, approaching his 41st birthday, is a welcome sight on tournament grounds regardless of the state of his game.

“He’s still just turning every head when he walks into the dining area,” Jordan Spieth said. “Or if he’s on the driving range, I mean everybody’s looking up to see him hit some shots.”

Yes, Woods is back. But the state of his game is perhaps the most coveted information in the sport. The ensuing four days will provide a glimpse, even if they won’t tell the full story.

Questions that once focused on his health, or even if he would return to competition, have now shifted to what version of Woods we will see in the debut of what he described Tuesday as “Phase 2” of his career.

“I felt good with pretty much everything,” Woods said Wednesday. “I was able to hit all the shots I needed to hit.”

Sure, some feedback will be gleaned. His swing will inevitably be dissected from all angles, and the short game that bogged him down so often last year will be on full display, for better or worse.

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And given such a small sample size, dangerous levels of extrapolation are sure to follow. Every made birdie will mean a 15th major is a fait accompli; every flubbed chip will lead others to question if his career has run its course.

It’s hardly a fair scenario, but such is life when you’re Tiger Woods.

Woods was a marvel of control when at his peak, and he has flexed that trait once again in making his long-anticipated return. The Hero World Challenge is as close to golf in a bubble as you can get on Tour – an isolated location with few media and even fewer fans.

It’s a tournament he runs on a course he knows well, and it’s a limited field in which he feels comfortable and doesn’t have to sweat a cut. None of those factors were in play last month at the Safeway Open, from which he withdrew.

But despite the hopes of even the most ardent fans or naysayers, 72 holes in a controlled environment won’t tell the whole tale. Instead, it’s the first step in a journey that will likely feature a few more.

“I think he’s accepted the fact that he’ll be patient,” Spieth said. “But like anybody that takes off a year and a half for injury or whatever other reasons, you don’t just come back and expect anything. It’s going to take a little time.”

Prognostications about next year’s schedule, or focus over Woods’ future fate in majors, will have to wait. Woods’ latest and most-discussed comeback will likely be an incremental build, one that could take still more time to fully develop.

Former New York Yankee star Derek Jeter played in the pro-am group behind Woods on Wednesday, and the two have shared several casual rounds together. Like Woods, Jeter missed a long stretch of playing time in 2012-13 that led to a few stops and starts along the comeback trail.

“I can’t speak on him and what he’s feeling, but for me,” Jeter said, “you come back and you’re told you’re healthy, but you’ve still got to get out there and experience different things before you’re really sure. So yeah, there’s some uncertainty there, at least there was for me.”

For his part, Woods has checked off all the boxes. For once in his career he has taken the deliberate path to injury recovery, and he now claims a full bill of health. He has bided his time, surveying his options for a possible return, and chosen carefully.

He even put on a strong display during the pro-am, with a pair of par-5 eagles to go along with a handful of up-and-downs that belied a man with any short-game woes.

“I’ll be focused,” Woods said of Thursday’s opening round. “I’ll be ready.”

Fifteen months is a long time to wait on a legend. But now he’ll start to provide some answers, even if the biggest riddles can’t be solved by a few rounds in the Bahamas.